Saturday, 24 October 2015

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson Review

Nimona, a shape-shifting young woman, becomes the sidekick to the villainous Ballister Blackheart. Together they’ll overthrow the Institution and defeat Blackheart’s arch-nemesis Sir Goldenloin! 

I wish I could join in the overwhelming praise for Noelle Stevenson’s comic buuut… no, I thought it was just ok at best. 

Like shape-shifting Nimona, the book starts off as one thing, morphs into something else, and then something else again. It’s like we’re seeing Stevenson try to figure out what the comic is supposed to be. 

The first few pages have lots of panels; they’re irreverent and jokey and have the feel of a newspaper strip or a handful of Kate Beaton castoffs. After a few pages of that the panels become fewer and bigger and it turns into a kind of medieval Batman and Robin (Nimona’s world is a deliberately anachronistic place where knights and modern-day electronics co-exist – anything goes, woo!). Then it becomes weirdly sincere and our villain protagonists become noble as they’re reframed as rebels trying to overthrow a tyrannical, militant, warmongering state and ends up feeling like a kiddie-friendly V for Vendetta! 

I think the changing nature of the story comes down to Noelle Stevenson’s relative inexperience - she’s only 23 - which is why many important aspects of the comic feel very poorly set up. Ballister’s backstory with Goldenloin is a mess. When they were younger they were asked to joust against each other with the winner becoming the champion of the Institution, the ruling body of this world. Except the joust is fixed. 

Ballister knocks off Goldenloin who then uses his modified lance to shoot a missile at Ballister, taking his arm off. But Goldenloin claims it was an accident and that nobody could prove otherwise. What - you didn’t mean to accept a rocket-launching lance before heading out to joust? Or that you didn’t intend to aim and fire it at Ballister? And that nobody saw you deliberately shoot a missile at your mate at point blank range? How could anyone see that and NOT prove it was deliberate?! Using a rocket launcher in a joust is the least accidental thing in the world! 

Then there’s some completely incomprehensible gibberish over the archetypes they ended up becoming. Ballister says: “I never had a choice! The Institution needed a villain. That lot fell to me. I never chose it. And it could just as easily have been you, had that ‘accident’ happened differently!” So… because he lost the joust and his right arm, he HAD to become the villain? Why? Who made him do villainous things? No-one! Goldenloin retorts: “You never had it in you to be a hero! Everyone always knew that you were going to be the one to go bad!” - what?! Who “always knew” this?! And then later there are more dumb assumptions made: “If Blackheart dies, he’ll be a hero for the commoners!” - why?! 

Ballister’s a very inconsistent character. Sometimes he doesn’t believe in killing, other times he has no problem with it. We meet him planning to kidnap the king with genetically modified dragons and blow up some towers, then later he tries poisoning people and robs a bank - but we’re supposed to believe if he dies he’ll be a hero to ordinary people!? This is just sloppy writing. 

Other parts of the book are either underwritten or simplistic. Why does Ballister need a sidekick? He seems to be fine without one. Come to think of it, why does Nimona need a boss? We never know why. The Institution and its Director are very one-dimensional villains (think a female Adam Susan for the Director). They want to weaponize a banned substance to fight an enemy we never see. They also seem to have a handle on things just fine until the plot needs them not to - Ballister and Nimona spread a rumour and, rather than just deny it which they could easily do and get away with, they’re suddenly “on the ropes”! 

Some parts of the story just don’t make sense like why does a castle/research facility have a self-destruct sequence - what possible reason could there be for that function!? Like many comics writers, Stevenson has an over-reliance on “newsreaders to narrate huge chunks of exposition to the reader” cliche. That’s more of a personal peeve, I’m sure it won’t bother most people. 

However, Ballister and Nimona’s relationship develops nicely – they’re a cute pair of buddies – and I like that the book ends very open-ended. The comic has a cheerful atmosphere of comedy and drama and Nimona’s a really fun, likeable character - so is Ballister actually. And I like Stevenson’s art style, especially Nimona’s design which is of a realistically proportioned young woman, not stick-like and waifish. 

Like her other book, Lumberjanes over at Boom, I can see Stevenson’s appeal but I also know I’m not her target audience of younger readers, particularly teen girls who love fantasy. It's good there are more books out there appealing to previously neglected areas of the comics audience especially as female comics readers are a rapidly growing demo. That’s not to say older readers won’t dig this (quite a few reviewers here loved it and aren’t teen girls themselves - but then this is the internet so who knows!) but for this older reader who couldn't help noticing the flaws, Nimona read like what it was: amateurish in places with an uneven and overlong story that wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be. 

It’s a decent effort though, especially for someone so young whose career in comics has just begun. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book – it isn’t – but Nimona just wasn’t for me.


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